The Slaughter at Shinnecock … or why Phil Mickelson was right

The United States Open is supposed to be a tough but honest test of golf. Instead, it has become a travesty

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Bruce DowbigginAs far as Phil Mickelson is concerned, the GA in USGA probably stands for “god awful.” In his putting protest against course conditions in round three of this year’s men’s U.S. Open (run by the United States Golf Association), Mickelson pitted his sterling reputation against the prestige of the USGA.

It was a pyrrhic victory for the 48-year-old star who was trying to add a U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club before his best days are done. In hitting a putt on the 13th hole on Saturday before the previous one stopped moving, Mickelson broke an inviolate rule of the game. That called for a two-stroke penalty. He carded a massive 10 on the par four on way to a 81 that effectively left him out of the title hunt at +17.

As there was little doubt that Lefty committed the mistake fully aware of what he was doing, there were calls on the Fox TV and NBC Golf Channel broadcasts for him to be disqualified. But the USGA, already humiliated by their punitive setup of the course, declined to punt him (TV ratings in mind, no doubt).

The biggest cost to Mickelson, outside his bloated score, is to his reputation as one of the sport’s ambassadors. While he has had some dicey moments off the course (an FBI sting accused him of stock speculation and he paid a US$1 million restitution), Mickelson has been known as the smiling yin to Tiger Woods’ brooding yang since the 1990s. TV cameras are forever catching him signing autographs and high-fiving fans.

While some of this is theatre, there’s no doubt that choosing to make a stand against the USGA will haunt him almost as much as did his earlier penchant for blowing sure things in big tournaments. The hit-while-walking schtick was previously in the realm of John Daly, the court jester of the PGA Tour. It’s not an honourable thing to do and in golf that still matters a bunch.

Having said that, Mickelson was using his rep as an untouchable to give voice to what a lot of other players have been feeling the past decade about how the USGA under CEO Mike Davis tricks up its courses to humble the stars of the game. And there’s no doubt that the war between players like Mickelson and the suits who run golf in the U.S. is at a boiling point.

Here are but a few players’ comments:

Rafa Cabrera-Bello: “… it was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course.”

William McGirt: “I refuse to watch it because I know what the outcome will be. Mike Davis and his crew could ruin Christmas. #amateurhacks #giveusourgameback.’

Ian Poulter: “I’m not sure I could possibly comment without using words which shouldn’t be seen … just like some of those pins. Disappointing. @USGA @usopengolf why are mistake still being made at this level? Was that fun to watch guys? I’m only 4 behind & can still win this.”

The Slaughter at Shinnecock is just the latest in a series of disasters to befall the ultimate golf championship in the U.S. To pick just a few, there were the miserable greens at Chambers Bay (2015), the unreachable pins at The Olympic Club (1998), the Dustin Johnson penalty at Oakmont (2016) that led the USGA to admit they’d “made a bogey” in their rulings, and the previous trip to Shinnecock in 2004, when the course again turned into the Daytona Speedway for putts.

As Thomas Boswell noted in the Washington Post, “This USGA setup couldn’t identify the difference between Tommy Fleetwood, 12th in the world, and Fleetwood Mac (one of his favourite bands).”

By the end of Saturday, the USGA was once again admitting its error, this time for pushing the course too close to impossible – and then watching it go past that line of control.

Davis tweeted: “There were some aspects today where well executed shots were not rewarded. … We missed it with the wind. We don’t want that. The firmness was ok but it was too much with the wind we had. It was probably too tough this afternoon – a tale of 2 courses.”

Why does this keep happening to the people who are allegedly the best agronomists, meteorologists, architects and rules stewards in the U.S.? Granted the Masters only has the one course at Augusta National, but when was it ever in embarrassing form for the April tournament? Likewise the PGA Tournament, which is often played in beastly heat in August, has rarely suffered such black eyes. Ditto the Players tournament in May at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra.

Sure the scores can go low at those venues but who complains about the tracks being easy?

No one.

Sunday’s final round at Shinnecock showed a softer face. Fleetwood shot a record 63. Brooks Koepka won his second consecutive U.S. Open, just the seventh man to do so. Mickelson, playing early the day, carded a 69. They handed out trophies and the networks tried to play up the nice finish.

But the Slaughter at Shinnecock will linger for the USGA and for Mickelson. That’s a shame for such a great title and player. Or as Phil might well have said, it’s a “god awful” way to decide a tournament.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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